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Your very own drone, to follow you home

Universal Air got its start with a $15,000 Kickstarter campaign that earned $220,000. Now it wants to make drones that can autonomously follow you around. Without an Internet signal.

The R10, the initial product from UAir. The company hopes to eventually create a drone capable of autonomously tracking people, making the aircraft ideal for adventure sports enthusiasts.

Imagine carving your way down a particularly challenging slope, your skis kicking up clouds of snow, trees flying by, your death-defying stunts captured perfectly on camera. And you're all by yourself.

How would you pull off such a feat?

Short of those with a film crew on hand, or at least a buddy with a GoPro camera tracking your every move, it's hard to imagine it being possible at all, let alone while you're alone.

But you may not have to imagine it for long.

Next week, a startup called Universal Air will finish shipping out its entry level R10 quadrotors, a drone whose advertised combination of low price, reliability, and durability inspired more than 400 people to fund the company's Kickstarter campaign to the tune of almost 15 times its financial goal. UAir, as it's known, had hoped to raise $15,000 and ship 30 R10's, according to co-founder Max Bruner, but ended up bringing in $220,000 and facing one of the problems many super-successful Kickstarter projects experience: the inability to quickly satisfy demand.

Bruner said that the R10 was initially meant to be a prototype, but with so much interest, UAir had no choice but to ramp up to a production-quality drone. And now, those who ordered the UAV will soon be getting their hands on an aircraft said to be ideal for allowing amateur photographers and videographers to shoot from the air, yet which users can fly with an Xbox controller or an RC transmitter.

Cool as the R10 might be, though, it's not up to the task of autonomously tracking you while you barrel down a ski slope.

But while the R10 is meant to appeal because of its low price and its durability, UAir is hoping that initial UAV is just the beginning. The company is readying its next drone, a slick and easy-to-use aircraft expected to go on sale in July that stands apart from competing consumer products like the Parrot AR Drone, and a number of expensive hobbyist kits with more functionality, by offering both a low price and the ability to carry a payload like a GoPro camera. The Parrot, by comparison, shoots HD video with a built-in camera, and Bruner believes users are going to want better optics than that, but without paying the hefty prices of more sophisticated but harder-to-use hobbyist rigs.

Yet UAir's ultimate product isn't its next drone. Rather, it's the UAV the company hopes to get off the ground sometime in the first half of 2014. That, said Bruner, will be a fully-autonomous quadrotor aimed at the adventure sports market. The idea? Allow someone to go skiing, or rock climbing, or high-diving, and know that their drone is following them the whole way, thanks to an on-board tracking beacon, shooting HD photos or videos the entire time.

As with the current-gen Parrot AR Drone 2.0, UAir's future UAV is expected to feature Wi-Fi connectivity that allows a user to take the drone with them and count on it staying close by, regardless of whether or not there's an accessible Internet connection. As long as a user can establish a Wi-Fi connection between their mobile phone and the drone, "you're good to go," Bruner said.

Surveillance but not invasion of privacy
Like many drone makers, UAir UAVs make surveillance easy. But Bruner said a combination of U.S. Federal Aviation Administration restrictions and the company's own concerns about privacy invasions led it to focus on Wi-Fi as a connectivity technology. That's because, he said, using Wi-Fi means that the drones are limited to being within line of sight of the user. That doesn't fully preclude snooping, of course, but it makes it a bit harder.

Still, even with that limit on how far away a user can be from the drone, UAir thinks its products are going to be popular with industry.

Although UAir is clearly planning on being a player in the consumer drone market, Bruner said that another big part of its business is to provide surveillance services to a wide range of industries. That's why Bruner said UAir's real business isn't selling drones, but rather a platform built to make it easy for the startup to nurture relationships with commercial partners.

Clearly, the company wants to make inroads with the photography and videography communities, but UAir is also hoping it can convince those in other industries -- such as mining, farming, or insurance, to name a few -- to get on board. And part of its pitch is that the drones, while designed to carry cameras, can also carry a range of sensor packages purpose-built for industry. So, for example, Bruner imagines the company's drones being used for things like overflights of mines to look for environmental impacts; low-cost home roof inspections; and even crop fertilization. "We think there's a whole [software as a service] market," Bruner said.

Others think so too. Airware, a recent alumni of the prestigious Silicon Valley incubator, Y Combinator, is also pursuing a drone platform strategy. But that company doesn't plan on selling UAVs itself.

As such, UAir could have an advantage selling on both sides of the business. And it's also considering a series of data analytics tools that can help its clients better understand their businesses. "We might be giving a farmer more information about when and where to fertilize crops," Bruner said. "Drones are the beginning of the autonomous services market. There's a whole new market out there. We're just in the infancy of service robotics."